In a recent comment, John Domini remarked how Kafka is “a major marketing tool” in Prague (Kafka beer steins, Kafka underwear, etc.), which reminded me, in a U.S. context, of how Levi’s exploitatively enlisted Walt Whitman’s poem “O Pioneers” for their 2009 “Go Forth” ad campaign. The commercial is a laughably bad example of corporate propaganda that turns Whitmanian address into capitalist interpellation (I remember the commercial was loudly booed when it was shown before a screening of Pedro Almodóvar’s Broken Embraces).
In an apparently non-ironic comment, YouTube user sapporo1992 says, “i seriously get so inspired when i see this. haha and i do kinda live a life like that full of adventure maybe thats why i relate to it so much…and i love walt whitman’s poetry.”
In contrast to the “inspiring” and “adventurous” Whitman (this is the Whitman of “Song of the Open Road”), the recent The Simpson’s episode “The Squirt and the Whale” (episode 460) presents us with the “comforting” and “compassionate” Whitman (this is the Whitman of “Vigil Strange I Kept on the Field One Night”). In the episode, Lisa comforts a beached blue whale (she names her “Bluella”) by reading her a passage from Leaves of Grass. She says to the whale, “When I’m sad I read something beautiful and true: poetry” and then reads aloud the first three lines of “The World below the Brine” (“The world below the brine; / Forests at the bottom of the sea—the branches and leaves, / Sea-lettuce, vast lichens…”) before falling asleep beside the beast. When she awakes, she finds that Bluella is dead.
Even though Lisa taps into the Whitmanian spirit of reading his leaves “in the open air” (as he instructs us to do in the 1855 Preface), I find particularly objectionable her middlebrow notion of poetry as uplifting and her Keatsian equating of poetry with the beautiful and the true (poetry, of course, can serve such purposes but such a representation obscures the range of other affects that are possible in poetry and the different types of cultural, social, intellectual, and philosophical work that poetry can perform). If there is any redeeming aspect to the episode (there is none in the Levi’s commercial), it might be found when the town decides to blow up the whale’s carcass with dynamite. When the detonated TNT obliterates the whale’s flank, Police Chief Wiggam remarks “so clean how part of it just disappears like that” just before a shower of burning blubber rains down on him and the spectators. A big chunk of pink whale fat also demolishes Mayor Quimby’s podium much to the politician’s dismay.
This moment–and its fraudulent rhetoric of cleanliness–proleptically anticipates (the episode aired on April 25, 2010) the “Coast is Clear” ad campaign that Florida tourism officials had to yank in early June in the face of an oncoming oil slick. In fact, I would argue that these bubblegum-pink gobs of goo, this necrotic matter, anachronistically and metonymically express a deep anxiety of oil polluting our shores (again, the episode premiered just five days after the Deepwater Horizon disaster). Whale blubber, the raw material for whale oil, was, of course, our precursor to kerosene and petroleum; in a beautiful statement at Poets for Living Waters Phil Metres reminds us of this and says, in reference to Moby Dick, “We had to slay the whale to feed our longing to read deep into the night.” This cartoonish whale fat is, to use a term from Metres’ poem “Lubricities,” “the jism of the gone.”
According to Joyelle McSweeney, who has been writing a series of provocative posts on “necropastoral” at Montevidayo, “Where classical pastoral insists on separation and containment, necropastoral posits supersaturation, leaking, countercontamination.” Thus we might consider “The Squirt and the Whale” to be a necrocoastal parable that dramatizes the way in which the police, polis, and politicians cannot be separated from the messy resources they wish to exploit (after his podium is destroyed, Mayor Quimby decides that the town should make “use of every part of [Bluella’s] body, from blowhole to fluke”).
Furthermore, I’d like to use McSweeney’s suggestive term “necropastoral” as a kind of theoretical fulcrum with which to leverage Whitman away from the “inspiring” and “comforting” and more toward the radical terrain of his discomforts.
If “The World below the Brine” (especially in Lisa’s reading of it) can be termed an “underwater pastoral” that evokes a golden age of “coral, gluten, grass, rushes” and a “sperm-whale at the surface , blowing air and spray,” then “As I Ebb’d with the Ocean of Life,” another poem from the “Sea Drift” cluster, can be read as its necro-counterpart, a necrocoastal ode. While it isn’t a pastoral poem—it is more like a shore ode or a greater romantic lyric—and it doesn’t have the components of duplicity and performativity that are important to McSweeney’s conception of necropastoral, it clearly imagines the coast—as not a locus for political order and containment—but as an interstitial site that (to cite McSweeny on the necropastoral and Plath) “demonstrates the fact that Death is both a reversible, traversable membrane and the point at which the body is revealed to be not so much animated by the soul but diabolically re-animated”:
Me and mine, loose windrows, little corpses,
Froth, snowy white, and bubbles,
(See, from my dead lips the ooze exuding at last,
See, the prismatic colors glistening and rolling,)
The parentheses here mark a kind of labial interval that self-reflexively casts the poem itself as a flow of convulsively beautiful ooze exuding from the dead but somehow re-animated poet; this, perhaps, can be linked to what Joshua Corey, in a response to McSweeney, is calling “zombie pastoral.” This is a prismatic lyric of the living dead. And, as Johannes Göransson notes, this is all about apertures. In Whitman’s model of lyric expressivity, it’s a two-way street (not a simple matter of exteriorizing or projecting what is internal). An open mouth is capable of singing but it also makes one susceptible to being stung and possessed by the outward environment:
I perceive I have not really understood any thing, not a single object, and that no man ever can,
Nature here in sight of the sea taking advantage of me to dart upon me and sting me,
Because I have dared to open my mouth to sing at all.
In “Necropoetics,” a chapter from This Compost: Ecological Imperatives in American Poetry, Jed Rasula calls Whitman’s “This Compost,” a reminder “that the earth is an immense reservoir of pestilence.” The poem, which is unlikely to get any airtime in a commercial or prime time TV show, begins:
SOMETHING startles me where I thought I was safest;
I withdraw from the still woods I loved;
I will not go now on the pastures to walk;
I will not strip the clothes from my body to meet my lover the sea;
I will not touch my flesh to the earth, as to other flesh, to renew me.
O how can it be that the ground does not sicken?
How can you be alive, you growths of spring?
How can you furnish health, you blood of herbs, roots, orchards, grain?
Are they not continually putting distemper’d corpses within you?
Is not every continent work’d over and over with sour dead?
Where have you disposed of their carcasses?
Those drunkards and gluttons of so many generations;
Where have you drawn off all the foul liquid and meat?
I do not see any of it upon you to-day—or perhaps I am deceiv’d;
I will run a furrow with my plough—I will press my spade through the sod, and turn it up underneath;
I am sure I shall expose some of the foul meat.
This is a necropastoral (M. Jimmie Killingsworth calls it an “antipastoral gothic fantasy” in Walt Whitman and the Earth: A Study in Ecopoetics) in the sense that it disavows the antiseptic cleanliness of a timeless and imaginary locus (and here we might invoke the fortuitous link between “pasture” and “Pasteur”) and imagines the entire environment to be saturated with pestilence. Again, this Whitman text is quite different from McSweeney’s examples (Jack Smith’s Normal Love, Ariana Reines’ The Cow) but I wonder if we might speak of “This Compost” as a necrogeorgic (generically, georgic is oriented toward work while pastoral is oriented toward leisure or otium). Let’s compare “This Compost” with the end of Virgil’s “Georgica I” (in David Slavitt’s translation):
…at last the farmer
(always the farmer, first and last the farmer)
driving his curved plow to till the earth,
and finding the Roman javelins covered with rust,
or digging with his shovel and striking a helmet.
Wonder at the white bones in the earth,
and feel in your own bones the sun’s fire,
the fire of life itself.
Here, agricultural work unearths the residues of history: artifacts of war, rusted and ready for musealization. In Local Transcendence: Postmodern Historicism and the Database, Alan Liu observes, “Georgic is the supreme mediational form by which to bury history in nature, epic in pastoral…in which history turns into the background, the manure for landscape.” If we imagine the landscape as an archive (“an immense reservoir of pestilence”), then, in “This Compost,” we have not an archaeological interest in “uncovering” authentic history (as we do in Virgil) but a questioning of the decomposing earth that is history’s membrane. Whitman, importantly, gives us the foul meat instead of the bleached bones. I’m wondering how this sense of necrogeorgic might change our view of the historical objects which are embedded within a decomposing, necrotic substrate. And I’m wondering if necrogeorgic can help us think through the deleterious effects of industry (McSweeney: “damage to bodies is sometimes the first materialization of corporate malfeasance”).
Michael Leong is the author of the poetry books e.s.p., Cutting Time with a Knife, Who Unfolded My Origami Brain?, and Words on Edge. His creative work has been anthologized in THE &NOW AWARDS 2: The Best Innovative Writing, Best American Experimental Writing 2018, and Bettering American Poetry, Volume 3. His co-translation, with Ignacio Infante, of Vicente Huidobro’s long poem Sky-Quake: Tremor of Heaven is forthcoming from co•im•press in late 2019. His critical monograph Contested Records: The Turn to Documents in Contemporary North American Poetry is forthcoming from the University of Iowa Press in May 2020. He has received grants from the Council of Literary Magazines and Presses and the National Endowment for the Arts. He teaches in the School of Critical Studies at CalArts.